Studio Math 101: $40 million is new budget ceiling for Hollywood dramas


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Much has been written in recent weeks about the success of ‘The Social Network’ and ‘The Town,’ not to mention the not-so-impressive launch of Disney’s ‘Secretariat.’ But the three movies also have in common something beyond the fact that they are dramas driven by strong story lines, not by A-list actors. They are examples of the new Hollywood Economics: If you want to make a drama, whether it’s a biopic or a crime thriller, your budget ceiling, with rare exception, is going to be $40 million.

Having seen too many star-studded dramas, all hoping for Oscar glory, take a dive at the box office in recent years (think: ‘Australia’ or ‘Changeling’), the Big Six studios have been brutally cutting back on budgetary excess. They’re saving some on talent, some on shooting days, some on tax rebates. As one studio chief told me the other day: ‘All those movies you’re talking about were made for far less than they would’ve been just two years ago. Almost by definition, dramas are aimed at older audiences, and you just can’t count on getting enough of that audience to come see the film. So you have to make it for the right price.’


The contrasts are striking. ‘The Social Network’ cost $40 million, roughly $30 million less than what it cost David Fincher to make his serial killer drama ‘Zodiac’ just three years ago. ‘Secretariat’ cost $35 million while ‘Seabiscuit,’ a similar horse racing drama made in 2003, cost roughly $85 million. ‘The Town,’ which was directed by Ben Affleck, cost $37 million, roughly half of what it cost to make a similar crime drama such as ‘Man on Fire’ back in 2004.

The Coen brothers’ upcoming ‘True Grit’ also adheres to this formula, with its budget coming in right around the $40 million mark. One of the few dramas to balloon out of this budget range was ‘Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,’ which, according to various budget estimates, ended up in the $60- to $70-million range, giving that film a far steeper climb to profitable territory.

To hear studio bosses tell it, the problem only begins with the fact that dramas are such a hard sell at the multiplexes. The real driving force behind this budget deflation is the DVD slump, which has taken an especially big bite out of adult-oriented dramas. ‘Instead of buying these movies on DVD, older moviegoers are renting them now from Netflix,’ says one veteran studio executive. ‘People have decided they don’t need to watch these movies multiple times, so they’ll still buy an animated film for their kid, but they won’t neccessarily buy a drama for themselves.’

Still, the good news outweighs the bad. The studios, having seen films such as ‘The Town’ and ‘Social Network’ hit paydirt, are more eager than ever to make them, since they not only give the studio the kind of movie that could play in the Oscar game but help build relationships with gifted filmmakers who might lend their talents to even more commercial studio properties. Fincher, for example, after having a fruitful collaboration with Sony and Scott Rudin on ‘Social Network,’ is already back at work at the studio, starting to film ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.’ And after the success of ‘The Town,’ Warners’ Jeff Robinov has made no secret of his desire to keep Affleck in the fold, having offered him several top studio projects to direct.

Hollywood money may not be flowing as freely as it once did, but the filmmakers who deliver the goods for the right price will never go hungry. There’s a reason why the Coen brothers, for example, have been able to make a movie nearly every year for the past decade -- they keep budgets low and quality high, which is the kind of formula that always keeps you in demand.